In many ways, a technical interview for a programming job can feel like an audition — your performance is being evaluated on the spot, it’s nerve-wracking, and there’s a potential job on the line. Though if you ask Zach Mansell, who was an orchestral cellist for a decade before learning to code, software interviews tend to be “much more forgiving,” he says.
There are lots of parallels between mastering a musical instrument and programming: both require discipline and mastery, for example. “In the software world, nothing is perfect,” Zach says. “But in music, it’s so competitive and the standard is so high that you have to be shooting for perfection.”
After a successful career as a professional musician, Zach was eager to test his talents in tech. He eventually landed a job as a Software Engineer at LinkedIn, where he’s the front-end tech lead for an internal big-data processing team. Going from endless auditions to a stable software job was a welcome change, but not without its challenges. “Software engineering and tech in general can be very intimidating,” he says. “I have not gotten over impostor syndrome.”
Nowadays, Zach has found new ways to incorporate music into his life as a programmer. “I listen to classical music all the time, and it’s a real pleasure to listen to great recordings,” he says. If you want to learn more about how Zach changed careers from cello to coding, we’re hosting a community event with Zach on May 24, where you’ll be able to ask him questions. Register for the virtual event here, and read on to learn more about Zach’s career path and what it’s like to work at LinkedIn.
What got me interested in the job
“I’ve always been a technical person. As a kid, I remember begging my parents to help me buy a super old used HP laptop so that I could play video games on it. I was obsessed with solving problems on computers, but at the same time, I was really into playing cello. I started playing cello when I was 5, and was a full-time classical musician until I was in my 30s.
I worked professionally as an orchestral cellist for over 10 years. To be successful as a professional classical musician is extremely competitive. I’ve won major auditions and did well in the industry. While I love music, at one point, I realized that I needed to make a change for myself.
Join our Q&A with Zach
I was taking an audition for another symphony orchestra, and I was staying with a friend of mine who is an engineer. My friend asked, ‘If you win this audition, what’s the salary of the orchestra?’ I told him, and he said, ‘If you lived here and had a job as a software engineer, you would be making double that.’ The math just didn’t make sense to me, and I was fed up. That’s when I decided to really concentrate on software.”
How I got in the door
“I didn’t think that I had a shot with computers and technology, because I didn’t go to school for it. I went to a boot camp and I worked as a Software Engineer and Instructor for active duty military service members who were learning to code.
Something that was extremely helpful for me getting this job at LinkedIn was going outside of my comfort zone and networking. To me, networking just means reaching out to someone, talking to them, setting up a call, and just getting to know them. If you can demonstrate that you’re serious about what you’re doing, and you ask good questions, you’ll eventually meet people who will be willing to give you an interview referral to their company.
I hunkered down for 6 months applying for jobs, practicing so-called ‘toy problems’ for technical interviews, and networking while working full time. I reached out to 50 people a day on LinkedIn and asked them: Where do you work? How much do you make? Do you like it? What do you recommend for someone in my position? I had calls all the time with people and was getting a ton of advice. By the end of the process, I had competing offers from LinkedIn, Google, and Square — all just by knowing someone.”
What I actually do every day
“I work on internal tooling and offline data processing at LinkedIn. My particular team is flexible and lets me decide when to go into the office. I’m the tech lead on the project that I’m working on, so I have to figure out all the steps of our project, what needs to happen, and how long it’s going to take. One of the hardest parts about this job is the non-technical project management part.
Here’s what you need to get started
If networking feels out of your comfort zone, Zach’s advice is to find someone whose career you admire or who has a similar background to yours, and ask them for a 15-minute phone call. Most of the time people will be more than happy to speak to you. “Talk to people, get their advice, get to know their story, and then you have all these data points and can form a plan for yourself,” he says.
Also, no matter what level you’re at, don’t be afraid to ask questions. “I try to ask clarifying questions, that way you’re getting this information on the table for everybody else,” Zach says. “There’s so many things to keep track of in this field, and it’s so important to just always be on the same page.”
Got questions for Zach about how he made this career switch? Be sure to attend our live Q&A community event on May 24. You can RSVP for the free event now — see you there!